Constipation isn’t something we often talk about, unless you hang around with me... But given it affects up to 25% of the population (and mostly women) it means a lot of us are suffering in silence. And while most people think of constipation as just an annoying symptom, it can also be the root cause of other symptoms and conditions, including fatigue, weight gain, low mood, and many more.
Unfortunately for most people, when this happens, they reach for a laxative pill, which can lead to what is known as lazy bowel syndrome. Your bowels become so addicted to laxatives that they cannot move without one. Laxatives should never be used on a long-term basis for constipation. They can actually lead to chronic constipation due to dehydration, complicating the problem and leading to a never-ending cycle.
It is really important to understand that constipation is a sign that things aren’t right in our digestive process and left unchecked for a long time, it will eventually lead to other complications which may well have been avoided had the initial discomfort of constipation been checked and addressed in the first place.
To understand the consequences of long-term constipation, it is important to understand the body’s excretion process. Your body must get rid of what it does not need along with toxins that may have tagged along with food you have eaten. There are toxins found in processed/pre-packaged foods and smaller amounts found in fresh foods that need to be excreted.
So, how do you know if you suffer from chronic constipation ?
There’s two different ways to tell if you have constipation. The first is the Rome III diagnostic criteria. It identifies people as having functional constipation when 25% of bowel movements are associated with at least two of the following symptoms: straining; hard or lumpy stools; a sense of incomplete evacuation; a sense of anorectal obstruction; the need for manual maneuvers; or fewer than three bowel movements per week in the previous three months, with an onset of symptoms longer than six months.
How Constipation Endangers Your Health
Most people think of constipation as a symptom rather than the cause of their health problems. For many functional gastrointestinal conditions like gut pathogens, leaky gut and food sensitivities, this is definitely the case - which is why you might want to get tested and uncover the root cause of your constipation.
But, constipation itself can also be the root cause of other symptoms and conditions. Constipation can wreak havoc with your insides, stemming from one of three main issues;
1. Toxin reabsorption in the colon, including excess hormones that would normally be excreted in the stool. Imagine what happens when all these toxins are jammed in your colon and going nowhere. The toxins are left to lie in your digestive tract, and the dangers can be many, the most common is colon cancer. The body can literally absorb toxins into its tissues when our colon’s movement is stuck.
2. Imbalance of intestinal flora, including a reduction in healthy species and overgrowths of unwanted bacteria or pathogens.
3. Structural and physical effects of large hard stools and the straining that commonly accompanies them.
Here are the top 10 symptoms and signs of constipation:
1. Effects of constipation on fatigue
Constipation and fatigue go hand-in-hand, with strong evidence for a connection between the two. The reason being is a dysbiosis caused by constipation can increase the fermentation of carbohydrates and the production of various gases, including super smelly hydrogen sulphide thought to cause dysfunction of the mitochondria - the energy producers within our cells. Impaired detoxification of toxic substances that can enter the bloodstream may also impact energy levels and cause fatigue.
2. Effects of constipation on weight gain
Yes, a build-up of poop can add a few extra kilos - anyone who has done colonic irrigation or an enema can attest to that... But what about ‘real’ weight, the fat storage kind? Yes, that too. Science is just starting to understand how a dysbiosis of intestinal flora can cause weight gain and obesity - but the link is definitely there. Hormone imbalances, particularly those relating to oestrogen have also been linked with obesity. So, not clearing those excess estrogens and having them reabsorbed back into your system might not be so good for your waistline.
3. Effects of constipation on the skin
Another side-effect of toxicity associated with constipation is acne and skin breakouts. This happens when toxins and waste are re-absorbed back into the bloodstream via the colon, rather than being eliminated. This study showed that 54% of acne patients have significantly altered gut flora while probiotics (beneficial bacteria) have also been shown to reduce symptoms. One thing is for sure, beauty begins in the bowel.
4. Effects of constipation on SIBO
Constipation is one of the highest risk-factors and most common causes of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This recently discovered condition, where bacteria from the large intestine end up in the small intestine where they don’t belong, is thought to be responsible for up to 80% of IBS cases. While the most common symptoms associated with SIBO are constipation, diarrhoea and extreme bloating, it has also been connected with fatigue, weight gain and many of the other issues discussed in this blog post.
5. Effects of constipation on brittle nails and thinning hair
Nutritional deficiencies can affect the growth of both hair and nails. And as we know, a lack of healthy flora in the gut can also decrease the absorption of many nutrients essential for energy and growth. Excess toxins being reabsorbed into the bloodstream doesn’t help your beauty regime, leaving you at risk of brittle nails and thinning hair.
6. Effects of constipation on poor immunity
Our intestinal flora is responsible for much of the body’s immune response, including the removal of cell debris, viruses, bacteria, and cancerous cells. As constipation is often associated with missing or damaged bacteria (intestinal flora), the impact on your immune system can be significant. The toxic build-up and inflammation associated with constipation can also impair the immune system and leave you vulnerable to infections like urinary tract infections (UTIs).
7. Effects of constipation on estrogen dominance
Constipation can inhibit the excretion of unwanted estrogen from the body and promote its reabsorption. We are exposed to a lot of environmental sources of estrogens through toxins such as plastics, medications and hormones in animal proteins that we consume. This means that most people have excess oestrogen coming into the body that needs to be excreted each day. If we are constipated, these excess estrogens can be re-absorbed in the colon and cause elevated estrogen levels, a condition also associated with allergies, weight gain, fatigue and breast cancer. Women who pooped three or more times a day had a 46% decreased risk of getting breast cancer compared to women who had bowel movements once per day.
8. Effects of constipation on structural conditions
Beyond functional and chronic disease, constipation can also cause structural problems that may require surgical intervention. Straining during bowel movements and sitting on the toilet for extended periods can result in haemorrhoids, rectal prolapse, and anal fissures.
9. Effects of constipation on faecal impaction
Faecal impaction is basically a bowel obstruction caused by poop that has hardened in the colon to the point that it is causing a solid blockage. In severe cases, faecal impaction can cause ulcers or bowel perforation. This is definitely one of the more severe side effects of constipation.
10. Effects of constipation on anxiety and depression
Mood and anxiety disorders have long been scientific bedfellows with constipation and other gastrointestinal disorders. While constipation is often thought to be the symptom, recent neuroscientific research has begun to show the importance of intestinal flora in the development of brain symptoms. So, there’s even more reason you might be feeling low if you can’t go to the loo, and it's these kinds of side effects of constipation that people aren't often aware of that make a huge difference to our everyday lives.
WHAT STRATEGIES CAN I USE TO RELIEVE CONSTIPATION?
These are some healthier ways to get a handle on constipation:
Constipation can be either a symptom of dysfunction or the cause. In either case, it’s an important message about an imbalance in your body that needs to be addressed. By maintaining healthy digestion with ample hydration, good nutrition, probiotics, and stress coping, you’ll be on your way toward optimal intestinal health and keeping your thyroid and estrogen levels steady.
Barbara is a qualified nutritionist offering Health, Nutrition & Lifestyle Counseling. She gives Healthy weight loss advice and promotes the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of the Med Life Diet - creating healthy lifestyle habits and attitudes for life !